Church advocacy on Proposal 3 is legal, experts say

Questions remain on funding disclosure and misinformation

By: and - November 6, 2022 3:27 am

The Archdiocese of Lansing with a sign against Proposal 3, Nov. 5, 2022 | Susan J. Demas

While voters might be surprised to see lawn signs for and against Proposal 3 outside churches across the state, experts say they are completely legal.

Proposal 3 seeks to amend the state Constitution to ensure Michiganders’ right to make and carry out decisions relating to pregnancy, including abortion, birth control, prenatal care and childbirth. 

The Michigan Catholic Conference is actively campaigning and donating against the proposal, which would permanently revoke a 1931 state law that would make abortion a felony punishable by up to four years in prison. The law could have gone into effect after the U.S. Supreme Court in June overturned Roe v. Wade, but it’s on hold as cases wind their way through the courts.

The group’s advocacy has included appeals to parishioners for financial contributions to oppose the amendment, as well as a joint statement from the bishops of Michigan’s seven dioceses sent to approximately 236,000 Catholic households on Oct. 10. 

In urging voters to reject Proposal 3, it stated that language in the proposal would mean that, “a minor would be allowed to seek sterilizing drugs or gender-changing procedures, in addition to abortion, without parental knowledge or consent,” which has been disputed by legal experts and condemned by LGBTQ+ advocates.

Magazine sent by the Archdiocese of Lansing against Proposal 3 | Susan J. Demas

There also have been localized efforts. The Archdiocese of Lansing, for instance, sent a full-color glossy magazine to households telling them not to vote for Proposal 3. The Archdiocese in Detroit issued a letter to parishioners in September against the measure.

“This is a grave offense to the dignity and sanctity of unborn, innocent human life. As people of faith who witness to the Good News of Jesus Christ and His teachings, we fervently oppose this deadly proposal and are taking action to defeat it,” wrote Archbishop of Detroit Allen H. Vigneron.

Neither the Michigan Catholic Conference nor the Archdiocese of Detroit responded to requests for comment.

While nonprofits, including churches or any house of worship, are not allowed to engage in partisan political activity, ballot proposals are technically nonpartisan and as such don’t apply under the restriction generally referred to as the Johnson Amendment.

Adopted in 1954, the Johnson Amendment was named for then-U.S. Sen. Lyndon Johnson (D-Texas), who introduced it after conservative-aligned nonprofit groups actively campaigned against him. 

It added to the Internal Revenue Code a restriction that “all section 501(c)(3) organizations are absolutely prohibited from directly or indirectly participating in, or intervening in, any political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) any candidate for elective public office.” 

But as the Texas Tribune recently reported, it is mostly an idle threat, with only two churches ever losing tax-exempt status in the nearly 70 years since.

Mark Brewer, an elections lawyer and former Michigan Democratic Party chair, told the Michigan Advance that the Internal Revenue code and state law does permit nonpartisan voter registration and get out the vote drives. 

“So programs like Souls to the Polls doing voter registration in churches of any denomination or a mosque, it’s entirely permissible,” he said.

And while he’s not seen any illegal activity by churches in connection with ballot proposals in this election cycle, Brewer believes the transparency surrounding those activities is lacking.

“In 1988, the [Michigan] attorney general issued an opinion which exempted churches from a lot of the reporting requirements under the Campaign Finance Act. I think that opinion is wrong, and I think those churches should be reporting,” he said.

The opinion Brewer referenced was issued by then-Attorney General Frank Kelley and cited a Michigan appellate court decision that determined requiring religious institutions to conform to reporting requirements would violate the First Amendment’s freedom of religion clause.

At the Michigan Hall of Justice in Lansing, a few dozen people gathered on June 24, 2022 to celebrate the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade. | Photo by Andrew Roth

“If church institutions were required to comply with the act, it would constitute an infringement upon the exercise of religious freedom and privacy, both as to religious institutions and their members,” stated the opinion.

That opinion was subsequently reinforced in 2000 by then-Attorney General Jennifer Granholm who cited a 1970 U.S. Supreme Court decision in upholding the exemption.

“Adherents of particular faiths and individual churches frequently take strong positions on public issues including…vigorous advocacy of legal or constitutional positions. Of course, churches as much as secular bodies and private citizens have that right,” it stated.

The coalition opposing Proposal 3, Citizens to Support MI Women and Children, spent more than $16.5 million in the third quarter, with the Michigan Catholic Conference donating approximately $6 million, according to campaign finance records. The other major partner, Right to Life of Michigan, has given about $9.4 million.

The coalition supporting the amendment, Reproductive Freedom for All, raised just over $34 million in the same reporting period, but has only spent $28.6 million. That coalition is led by ACLU Michigan, Planned Parenthood Advocates of Michigan (PPAM) and Michigan Voices.

AdImpact estimates opponents of Proposal 3 will exceed $21 million on TV ads Tuesday. Groups supporting Proposal 3 are estimated to spend $9.4 million on TV ads.

While ballot committees must report and itemize their donations and spending, what is not being reported is how much religious institutions themselves raised for these efforts and exactly where they spent it. Those figures are known only to the extent they show up in the ballot committee reports.

But some Catholic parishioners say whether it is legal for the church to spend money on these efforts, or even whether they should fully disclose how much they are spending, misses a larger question.

Karen Wollenhaupt of Pinckney is a lifelong member of the Catholic Church who notes that the Diocese of Lansing is spending money to sway voters while at the same time Livingston County’s only homeless shelter has had to close its doors because of a lack of funding.

“The money that they’re spending against Proposal 3 could have been spent to keep that shelter open, which is supposed to be the mandate of churches,” she said. “Part of why they are not taxed is so that they can use their money to care for those in need.”

Wollenhaupt also believes the church is violating its tenets by using its financial resources to spread misinformation about Proposal 3.

“I was educated by Dominicans and Sisters of St. Joseph, and they taught you to use critical thinking,” she said. “That’s how I was raised Catholic. And, you know, you get the facts and then you make your decision based on your life’s circumstances, and that’s not how the Catholic Church is approaching it.”

Jamie Manson, Catholics for Choice president, said through a written statement that “polls consistently show that a majority of U.S. Catholics believe abortion access should be legal in all or most cases.”

There are a number of other faith leaders who support Proposal 3 and held a Friday press conference.

Southeastern Michigan faith leaders on Friday called for a yes vote on Proposal 3, the ballot initiative that will restore abortion access in Michigan. | Ken Coleman

“The right to religious freedom also means the right not to have someone else’s religion imposed on me,” said Elizabeth Friedman, pastor of Lord of Light Lutheran Church in Ann Arbor, during the press conference held at the American Civil Liberties Union of Michigan office in Detroit. “And many faiths – including my own – affirm the right to access reproductive care.”

Rabbi Asher Lopatin, founding Rabbi of Kehillat Etz Chayim of Detroit, said that laws that restrict abortion access, “bars me from practicing my Judaism. In modern Orthodox tradition, the denomination of Judaism that I observe, our stance is clear. Abortion is not only permitted in Judaism, but at times required if the life of the pregnant person is in danger.”

John Duckworth, pastor of Gethsemane Missionary Baptist Church in Westland, said he is “passionate as a pastor that everyone has access to reproductive health care.”

Dale Milford, pastor of United Methodist Church in Farmington noted that “United Methodists have a Book of Discipline, with a section called Social Principles. … It says verbatim: Governmental laws and regulations do not provide all the guidance required by the informed Christian conscience,” said Milford. “Therefore, a decision concerning abortion should be made only after thoughtful and prayerful consideration by the parties involved, with medical, family, pastoral and other appropriate counsel.”

The ACLU Michigan is among the groups supporting Proposal 3 and did not return requests for comment for this story. 

The national ACLU supports upholding the right of religious institutions to advocate on issues like abortion. 

“The ACLU would vigorously oppose any effort to chill the ability of houses of worship and religious leaders to speak out on what they see as the important issues of the day,” read a 2017 statement. “Those kinds of restrictions would clearly be in violation of the Constitution.”

However, that statement was made in response to Trump administration efforts to essentially exempt churches from being investigated for potential violations of the Johnson Amendment, prompting the ACLU to add that it should not mean “religious organizations are entitled to receive special tax benefits and privileges that are unavailable to all other nonprofit organizations. Unconstitutional religious favoritism has absolutely no place in government.”

For Brewer, the balance between free speech and church/state separation is a delicate one, but something that is being achieved.

“I think churches and synagogues, mosques and every other religious organization do have a First Amendment right to participate in politics to make their views known,” he said. “I think the Johnson Amendment is constitutional, and I think it’s a fair trade off to trade tax exempt status, which is a very valuable thing, for restrictions on participating in candid elections. I think that’s a valid and fair trade off. But again, that being said, making your views known on issues is entirely legitimate for all these religious organizations.”


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Jon King
Jon King

Jon King has been a journalist for more than 35 years. He is the Past President of the Michigan Associated Press Media Editors Association and has been recognized for excellence numerous times, most recently in 2021 with the Best Investigative Story by the Michigan Association of Broadcasters. He is also an adjunct faculty member at Cleary University. Jon and his family live in Howell, where he also serves on the Board of Directors for the Livingston Diversity Council.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman

Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.